Operation and controls

Like its predecessors, the FZ18 packs a large number of features and an enormous zoom range into a fairly compact body. The feature set offers everything from point-and-shoot scene modes to advanced manual photographic controls. The joystick-controlled quick menu means that everything you need for everyday shooting gets its own external control. Making all the functions and features of a highly sophisticated camera such as the FZ18 accessible via a well-designed interface is an art form in itself, and luckily the engineers at Panasonic have learned to master this art form quite impressively over the past years.

Sure, the FZ18 offers so many settings and features that it'll take a few days to exploit all of its capabilities, but it's surprisingly easy to use - and if you are a total novice you can always switch to Intelligent Auto mode which offers drastically reduced menus and leaves most shooting decisions to the camera. We were pleased to see the pointless IS button has been dropped, though in its place is an AF/MF button (now split off from the old AF/MF/Macro button), which I personally didn't find myself using (manual focus on a camera like this is hardly high on my list). The new AF/AE lock is nice, and overall it's hard to fault a camera that manages to put so much control on the outside of such a compact body without becoming hopelessly confused.

Rear of camera

Externally the camera has changed very little since the FZ8. All the camera's controls are placed to the right of the 2.5-inch LCD screen. To the left of the centered electronic viewfinder is the pop-up flash button, to the right the viewfinder/LCD toggle and the new AF/AE lock button. Below this, to the right of the screen are the joystick and Display button (changes the amount and presentation of on-screen information). Next down is the four-way controller with a central 'menu / set' button.

In record mode three of the four arrow keys have a single function; Quick Review (look at the last image saved), flash mode and self-timer. The top (up) arrow cycles through AE-Compensation, Flash Exposure Compensation and AE Bracketing. At the bottom is a final button used to delete images in playback mode (or in Quick Review) and to change drive mode when shooting.

Top of camera

Some of the more obvious design changes have taken place on top of the camera. The Image Stabilization button has moved into the Quick Menu whereas the power button has moved from camera back onto the top plate. There are now also more modes accessible via the metal mode dial.

Display and menus

Only a few minor changes in the menus - which is good news as the FZ series of cameras have one of the most sensible, logical and user-friendly interfaces on the market today.

As with all Lumix cameras you have several options for how much - or little - information is displayed on the live preview screen, from none at all to this detailed display complete with live histogram. Half-press the shutter release and the camera will calculate exposure (AE) and focus (AF) indicating the AF area used and the aperture/shutter speed chosen. You'll also get a warning if camera shake is a danger.
If you want all the information, but like to see your preview without all the clutter, choose the 'out of frame' mode - designed to mimic a professional SLR viewfinder. The 'virtual dial' is activated when you turn the mode dial. It is useful for changing modes without taking your eye away from the viewfinder.
Pressing the joystick brings up the quick menu (first introduced with the FZ7). This has been expanded and now includes IS mode, focus mode, metering, white balance, ISO, file size and file type. Note that the menu is normally shown as an overlay on the preview screen - we're using a black background here for clarity. Pressing the 'up' arrow repeatedly cycles through Exposure compensation, Flash level adjustment and AE Bracketing. The left/right arrows change the actual settings.
Like the FZ8 the the FZ18 has a useful two-axis white balance adjustment feature. The four-page record menu covers options such as white Balance, sensitivity, picture size/quality, metering and IS modes and image adjustments.
In SCN mode you have a choice between a range of scenes, each of them symbolized by an icon. Each scene mode has a brief description (got by pressing the Display button)